Advancing a rights-based approach to land governance to reduce slums and alleviate poverty within Caricom

In recent years, many Caribbean economies have engaged in laudable initiatives and policy measures to tackle the negative consequences of unplanned urbanization and inadequate housing. These mechanisms include assistance with finance/mortgage and housing costs, and other mechanisms, to prevent economic deprivation and, more broadly, to provide access to affordable housing and promote social inclusion. Urbanization, democratization, decentralization, and globalization trends over the last two decades have led to the introduction of more realistic housing financial instruments and a transformation in the role of governments from a housing provider to an enabler. Guyana, for eg has gone a step further by making affordable house lots available across the country, providing turn-key houses in some cases, and has been encouraging slum dwellers to take advantage of these opportunities. Since the late 1990s, a host of new government-facilitated housing schemes have sprung up, including hinterland settlements. Similarly, Jamaica has embarked on housing projects and land distribution and registration to counter its housing demand.
Notwithstanding these positive initiatives/trends, the housing deficit across the region has remained high, and at the same time, unemployment and poverty rates have increased in some economies. Most of these countries continue to face considerable structural challenges, including barriers to social mobility, varying degrees of homelessness and squatting, limited access to funding for potential low-income homeowners, inadequate building codes and regulations, as well as political biases, among others. It can also be argued that housing systems in many of these economies are plagued by inadequately designed government policies and subsidies. and land market failures.
The world is replete with examples of inadequate housing and its contributions to intergenerational poverty. Slums and squatter settlements are among the most visible expressions of inequality and reflect longstanding development gaps between those who live in middle- to high-income neighborhoods and those living in poor or informal/squatter settlements. Land and housing policies in CARICOM economies are therefore, crucial in promoting community resilience, ending intergenerational poverty and cutting inequality cycles. Such instruments combat spatial segregation and provide an opportunity for climate adaptation through adequate planning and green infrastructure. As far back as the 18th century, English jurist William Blackstone stated, ‘there is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination, and engages the affections of mankind, as the right of property’. Land is a unique resource that can neither be imported nor replaced. Indeed, there is a defined and limited supply of land, and in many countries, land demands have led to violent conflicts at various levels of the society. In addition, there have been instances where governments and their special interest groups indulged in land grabbing.
The World Bank estimated that about 33 percent of the Caribbean’s population lived in slum dwellings as of 2018, and by 2030, an estimated 40 percent, or approximately five million persons would be urban dwellers and would require adequate housing. A 2016 UN-Habitat report on the urban/slum population ratio put Guyana’s slum population at 33 percent of the urban population (see table). However, as a positive sign, a similar report for 2020 shows it as 12 percent. While no current data is available for Jamaica, the 2016 report put the slum population at 60 percent of its urban population. Addressing urban-rural land disparity is therefore crucial for building a more just society linked to overall sustainable development. Such focus, however, must go beyond providing shelters. It must include protections against forced evictions, security of tenure, the availability of services and infrastructure, affordability, habitability, accessibility, cultural adequacy, and climate resilience. In other words, housing is not adequate until it incorporates the right to enjoyment of the localities, cities, and the economy.
Ensuring affordable housing must be the core of policy debates to ensure that legislative, budgetary, and other measures are in place to facilitate affordable housing initiatives, security of tenure, and inclusion of all stakeholders. However, it behooves me to mention that the right to adequate housing does not translate to the government’s obligation to build housing for the entire population. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 puts the role of housing explicitly as making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. The SDG agenda proposes promoting planning principles for sustainable urban development to foster community cohesion and security so that cities and human settlements continue to act as engines of employment and prosperity without straining land and resources.
Studies have shown that access to land is intrinsically linked to the achievement of human rights, such as the right to food, adequate housing, property, equality, non-discrimination, and ultimately, prosperity, all of which are of great importance to small farmers, pastoralists, women, ethnic, indigenous and other marginalized groups. Urban expansion, inequitable access to land, tenure insecurity, unsustainable land use, slum-concentrated poverty, lack of clarity on land rights, and resulting land conflicts have long justified the need for land management and policy responses to strengthen land tenure and change the land-holding and economic dynamics of the poor. Land governance emerged as a key determinant of sustainable growth and poverty alleviation through clearly established rules, procedures, and guidelines regarding land access and land use, policy implementation and enforcement, and management of competing land interests. At the core of a land governance regime is the building of a strong interaction between people and land that allows, among other socio-beneficial and democratic practices, the stakeholders’ participation in the decision-making process. Yale Law professor, Robert C Ellickson, takes the view that the principle of subsidiarity should be applied, ie the responsibility for dealing with certain problems should be delegated to the most decentralized institution capable of handling them. In essence, localism should be promoted by giving as much power as possible to the neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, advanced a polycentric approach to governance. She, however, posits that leaders should guard against falling into the “panacea trap,” ie the belief that there is a cure-all solution applicable to every issue, regardless of the local circumstances. Supporting these views, Nobel Laureate in Physics, Murray Gell-Mann concentrated on the functions of “complex adaptive systems”, ie how ecological systems and human communities adapt to stress and crises, and discovered that healthy systems communicate regularly and rapidly to sense impending threats and to determine how to respond effectively.
Despite the positive housing initiatives/trends, and intentions of Caribbean leaders, cries of varying types of discrimination resonate in the region. As a potent response, the Caribbean should adopt a rights-based approach to implement and or strengthen a responsible land governance system. A rights-based approach advocates that all forms of discrimination in the realization of rights be prohibited, prevented, and eliminated. In essence, such an approach would underscore equality and non-discrimination, accountability, justice, and transparency as the core elements of human development.
Several international frameworks for sustainable development underscore the importance of human rights for strengthening responsible land governance consistent with States’ existing obligations under international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. Under international human rights law, States Parties have specific obligations to (i) respect, (ii) protect, and (iii) fulfill the rights enshrined in the conventions. Failure to perform these obligations constitutes a violation of such rights. For eg, State Parties are required to (a) refrain from interfering with the enjoyment of rights. A State’s arbitrary forced evictions violate the right to housing; (b) prevent violation of rights by third parties. A State’s failure to ensure that private employers comply with basic labor standards may violate the right to just and favorable conditions of work, and when there is a conflict between culture and women’s rights, the human rights of women prevail; and (c) take appropriate legislative, administrative, budgetary, judicial and other measures toward the full realization of rights which includes the duty to promote human rights.
As a concluding note, the writer takes the informed view that a rights-based land governance approach centered on established human rights principles can provide a new, and urgently needed impetus for introducing responsible land governance reforms and holding governments accountable to their commitments. A rights-based regime of land governance would not only emphasize the removal of discriminatory socio-structural and other impediments to land allocation/distribution but would also facilitate the participation and inclusion of stakeholders in the decision-making process. The underlying focus on affordable land distribution/allocation would, while reducing slums, provide empowerment and the foundation for prosperity and poverty alleviation. Once people have security of tenure, they would in time build their homes and engage their home-equity in a host of economic activities.